If Allan Bonner can’t handle a question-and-answer session, it’s hard to imagine who can.
As a journalist, Bonner spent plenty of time at the other end of the microphone, working for CBC and RKO Radio Networks in the United States. For the past 15 years, however, he has specialized in coaching
heads of government and corporations on how to craft a newsworthy message, deliver it and handle any controversy that might come up.
Briston House Press recently published The Bonner Communications Series: Media Relations, the first in a five-book series that will examine the relationship between media and spokesperson.
Bonner spent some time Tuesday morning discussing his book his work with Pipeline.
Pipeline: What kind of experiences as a journalist prompted the book?
Allan Bonner: I was interviewing a person about additives in food. As soon as I mentioned red dye No. 5, which was an issue some years ago, you saw this sort of look of panic go over this person’s face. They said, “”Well look, I’m not going to talk about that, that’s not why I’m here.”” The person didn’t realize that although we’d agreed to discuss certain particular additives in food that once you’re into the topic, it’s not exactly a conversation with a journalist. It’s a little more like a friendly interrogation. But you’re into whatever the journalist wants to talk about. And, “”I don’t want to talk about it because I don’t feel like talking about it,”” is not a good reason. “”I don’t want to talk about it because I haven’t researched that topic,”” or someone else is charge of it or whatever — if there’s a legitimate reason, fine.
Pipeline: Technology vendors sometimes react the same way when talk turns to features that don’t work or projects that failed. How can marketers strike a balance between staying on message and responding appropriately to a line of questioning?
AB: It’s like with a hockey player. In a perfect world, your pass goes at a certain angle off your stick, and the angle of incidence equals the angle of refraction as it bounces off somebody else’s stick and into the net. Or it’s a certain height or it’s a certain speed and you practice that, regularly. But you can never take all of your skills in a real game with you. That’s just how life is. Even in the writing profession, you’re always going to have a little less time to polish. We do that in media relations. We ask what are our messages, we practice them out, we tune them up, we rehearse them, we examine them, we research them to make sure they’re true. But you should really try and answer the question. The answer to the question may be “”I don’t know.”” “”I don’t know but we’re trying to find out,”” is an answer. “”No one knows”” is an answer. Part of the task is to train people what it is they’re doing. They’re answering questions and trying to convince an audience. And not necessarily the journalist. I don’t care whether the journalist gets convinced. I say treat the journalist as a neutral conduit. Don’t sit around wondering if the journalist is positive or negative about this topic. Maybe the journalist has no opinion. It’s the audience that the journalist is representative that you’re after.
Pipeline: Is the interview necessarily an adversarial process?
AB: I can tell you that the average cabinet minister or CEO goes into the journalistic encounter with a far bigger chip on their shoulder than the journalist. They’re waiting for the entrapment. They’re waiting for the tough questions. I say, “”Knock it off. The journalist may not know what question to ask.”” Let’s talk about the high-tech sector: somebody comes in and talks about bandwidth or WiFi or whatever’s happening now. If you said, “”Well, what do you want to know about WiFi?”” maybe the journalist doesn’t know what he wants to know about WiFi. He wants to know whatever will help him write a story. Pick the most important thing you can say about WiFi, you’re supposed to be the expert on it. Dish out usable, manageable, understandable, helpful bites of information.
Pipeline: How “”trained”” can a spokesperson really be?
AB: Only 10 per cent of the real situation should be foreign to you, whether it’s a hockey game or an interview or what have you.You should have anticipated about 90 per cent of what’s going to happen. Yes, you can’t predict the exact configuration of the players, but you have to run, you get generally fit, you have to high hand/motor control. If you take away all the possible uncertainty and all the unforeseens that you can, then those few questions or events or pieces of body language — the guy leans in and pokes his finger at you — those things you can handle.
Pipeline: To what extent are external public relations agencies able to fill that education gap and to what extent can internal corporate communications executives take on that responsibility?
AB: Oh, all of the above. I’ve worked with some companies with some excellent internal programs where they have their own trainers on staff and so forth. And of course all politicians have someone on staff who’s quizzing them. As a matter of fact, John Kennedy used to do that over breakfast with Pierre Salinger. The problem with that is when you’re internal you have so many other responsibilities. Believe me, a journalist could never begin to imagine what some poor person in corporate public affairs has to engage in — speeches, public relations, if you’re in the oil industry you get calls from people who’ve been overcharged four cents at the pump. Investor relations, government relations, stakeholder relations. There’s such a range that goes beyond media. So first of all there’s a time constraint but second of all when you’ve been internal for a number of years you’re good old Bob and asking the CEO a few tough questions before his appearance on Canada AM. You really can’t pull out all the stops. You have to live with that person next week. So I’m often brought in by people with excellent public affairs programs to be the bad cop. Those people are secure in their jobs. They know I don’t want their jobs. They know this is a partnership.
Pipeline: In your book you talk about how public affairs spokespeople don’t understand newsrooms. To what extent should journalists have to understand the other side of media relations?
AB: The one thing I tell people not to so is say “”Gee, that’s a great question,”” but you know what? That was a good question. The reason being that in the United States, people do leave journalism, go work for a politician for a couple of years and then come back. Bill Moyers worked for Lyndon Johnson. When you’ve seen the inside of the White House or for that matter cabinet minister’s office, boy does that bring more to journalism. Wouldn’t it be great if we had more journalists who had really seen inside a cabinet minister’s office and understand what the policy development process is like? Or the inside of a bank CEO’s office and that person is now covering economic issues.
Pipeline: How do you vary your approach when, instead of dealing with a public sector person with very limited media background, you’re working with a marketing executive who thinks they understand everything there is to know about messaging?
AB: I’ve had people who say literally, “”Well, I used to be an English teacher, so I’m pretty good at this.”” Yes, you are standing in front of people, who are asking questions and occasionally answering them, but it really doesn’t translate. Or someone will say, “”I used to work at Air Canada so I know all about crisis management.”” I think the marketing person you’re talking about helps develop advertising slogans or packaging or maybe even events. Now I find the event management school of public affairs to be a little off. Ordering free food and drink and having a launch, having a news conference when something isn’t newsworthy — the difference between that and media relations is, what’s newsworthy about this? Who, what, when, where, why, how? The largest number of people affected a period of time. The superlatives — such as the first, the last, the tallest, the shortest, the positive benefit to people — those are the things that are the mainstay of the interaction between journalist and newsmaker. Sometimes there is a disconnect there between someone with great marketing skills, but media relations, although there is some overlap, is a separate matter.